French and Welsh United to Honour Heroic Owain AP Thomas "Lawgoch"

My wife and I were very fortunate to be able to attend a superbly organised Joint Cultural Festival at Montague-sur-Gironde (near La Rochelle) between the 15th and 19th of August this year. The occasion was the unveiling of a monument to commemorate the last male heir of the Welsh royal family, namely Owain Lawgoch (Owen of the Red Hand), or as the French would have it – Yvain de Galles, the great nephew of the last Welsh Prince of Wales and a formidable Captain General of France, a renowned military commander. Owain’s exploits in France in the 14th century had included forays into adjoining countries and he was paid a huge sum for his part in a proposed invasion of England.

Owain’s place in French history has stood the test of time and his name is revered by the inhabitants of Montagne. In Wales he had largely been consigned to history, a legendary figure associated with Carreg Cennen Castle. However, his identity and his reputation has been rescued from the annals of time and detailed in a book entirely devoted to him, entitled “Owain of Wales”, published in 1991, written by Professor Antony D. Carr of Bangor University.

Owain in the eyes of the French was the Prince of Wales and as a fearless adversary of the English in France, he was held in great repute. Indeed, he was such a thorn and threat to the English state that a plan was hatched in England to carry out a political assassination. The plot came to fruition on a summer day in 1378 at a time and place where Owain was in the process of besieging the English in Montagne Castle. His demise came at the hands of one of his own henchmen, a squire called John Lambe, whose treachery had been signalled and authorised by an English commander, Sir John Neville, in London. Lambe, who was an attendant to Owain, speared his master in the back for a reward of £20.

The three-day Festival centred on the ceremony to unveil the monument commemorating Owain Lawgoch, Le Chevalier á la Main Rouge. The monument takes the shape of a great hand, some eight feet high, sculpted by a French stonemason. In the palm of the hand is a slate disc made in North Wales. The disc is marked with the two lions of Gwynedd, the arms of Owain the Red Hand, Owain Lawgoch and Yvain de Galles. The monument is built on the site of the old castle.

 

The crowd watches as the huge hand holding the Welsh slate plaque is unveiled

We travelled to Montagne on the 15th August. In glorious sunshine and high temperatures the town of Montagne was enveloped in a festive atmosphere. The main roads had been cordoned off to allow the town to be pedestrianised. Hundreds of Welsh people had arrived by coaches and ferries, Welsh dignitaries by plane. The streets were alive with the mingling of French and Welsh voices against a colourful background of costumes. The Bar de Medoc was crammed with people, as was the Tourist Office, outside which I spotted Professor Antony Carr and his wife Glenda, whom I had not seen since the late 1960’s.

 

The programme of events included a week’s exhibition of contemporary art and craft from Wales, street entertainment, folk dancing, troubadours, a Grand Parade of folk groups, musicians, singers, local children in medieval costumes, flag bearers, knights on horseback, Grand Repas or Gala dinners, visits to vineyards and distilleries, food stalls, river trips on the Gironde and barbecues.

Dancers from Carmarthen

 

The grand procession

 

The streets are alive!

A large marquee (chapiteau) housed the major events – dinners, concerts, dances and speeches. The unveiling ceremony attracted a huge crowd with French government representatives and a French general in attendance. Welsh dignitaries included Lord Livesey of Talgarth, Roger Williams, M.P., Mrs Rosemary Butler, A.M. and Dafydd Wigley.

The Grande Finale on Sunday the 17th of August included a huge fireworks display on the port area with food and entertainments. The local people had provided a week of tremendous hospitality – with accommodation, superb food and wine – and we Welsh realised it would be very difficult to emulate and reciprocate.

All of this, on the Welsh side, was due to the inspiration of one man, Mr Bryan Davies of Brecon, who became passionately interested in Owain after a visit to Carreg Cennen Castle in 1990. Over the ensuing year he had negotiated with the Mayor of Montagne, strived heroically to raise money and sponsors and established the Owain Lawgoch Society. His work and organisation came to fruition with a Joint Festival which was a tremendous success through great collaboration. It is worth noting that the French made a grant of £36,000 and the Welsh Assembly £9000 to the event.

Hugh Jones